Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes
Camp Round Meadow
1:21 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It looks like we're taking this show on the road. Welcome to Camp David.
Obviously, the President has completed the first working session of the summit with our GCC partners here at Camp David. Their working lunch is ongoing right now. They’ll have a couple of working sessions later this afternoon. Then you’ll have an opportunity to hear from the President a couple of times this afternoon before we wrap things up.
So, in the context of this briefing, the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes participated in the working session, the first one that took place this morning, so he’s here to answer questions that you may have on the summit and other foreign policy questions you have. I know there’s a lot of business getting done on Capitol Hill today, too, and I'm happy to take those questions. So that's sort of the way that we'll divide it up.
So let me go to your questions. Julie, do you want to get us started?
Q Yes. Well, I guess just to start, Ben, can you tell us what they discussed in the working session, presumably on Iran?
MR. RHODES: Sure. Well, they’ll be discussing a number of issues throughout the day, including Iran, countering violent extremism, the counter ISIL campaign, and the regional conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya.
This morning focused on Iran. And the President and his team was able to provide an update on the status of the nuclear negotiations, and we were able to have the participation of Secretary Kerry, Secretary Lew, and Secretary Moniz to review the status of both the framework that was reached in Lausanne and the ongoing negotiations towards a comprehensive deal.
Of course, in addition to discussing the nuclear negotiations, there are also discussions about concerns about Iran’s destabilizing actions across the region which touch upon the security of our GCC partners. So there will be ongoing discussions about what are the strategies to deal with these destabilizing actions and what are the types of capabilities that are necessary for our GCC partners to provide for their security in the current regional context.
Q Have the final decisions on some of the things you guys talked about earlier in the week -- weapon sales, joint exercises, missile coordination -- have the final decisions on those been made yet?
MR. RHODES: I think it's fair to say that given the preparatory work, we have a fairly clear view of where we'll be headed in terms of those issues. There will be a joint statement issued out of the summit that will detail the agreements that were reached here at Camp David. But what’s happening today is the leaders are able to step back, have a broad, strategic discussion that touches on all these issues, make refinements as necessary to those outcomes.
And as it relates to capabilities, we're really looking at what we can do to expedite the provision of support and capacity-building to the GCC in areas like ballistic missile defense, maritime security, special operations, counterterrorism capacity, border security. These are the types of capabilities that I think are directly relevant to the threats across the region to include not just destabilizing activities from Iran but also terrorist groups like ISIL.
Q Ben, what is being said during these meetings to discourage these Gulf state leaders from engaging in an arms race with Iran? I mean, I'm imagining that came up during some of these conversations. What is the President saying to address those concerns?
MR. RHODES: Well, Jim, first of all, the briefing on the comprehensive deal that we're pursuing with the P5+1 and Iran I think is fundamental to those questions and concerns. And our position is very clear. Iran has had a nuclear program that has been operating for at least two decades now. They have been continuing those actions unconstrained and often without intrusive inspection. And our point is, under this agreement that we're pursuing with the Iranians, that program will be rolled back and face significant limitations that it doesn’t currently face, and there will be the most intrusive inspections regime of any arms control agreement that we've ever had. And in that context, we will be able to verify that Iran is not using its nuclear program for anything but a peaceful purpose and that they’re abiding by the limitations that are in the deal
In that context, there would be no need to see the type of regional arms race that would make an already volatile part of the world that much more unstable and unsecure. And in fact --
Q Is there agreement on that -- on that point?
MR. RHODES: I think that the leaders -- I'll let them speak to it and the joint statement will speak to this -- but I think, first of all, we've never had any indication from any of these countries that they are intending to pursue the type of domestic nuclear program that would raise concerns. We actually have peaceful nuclear cooperation with a number of these countries -- the 123 Agreement, for instance, with the United Arab Emirates.
So their concerns I think are focused on what Iran is doing across the region, and their concerns have to do with whether or not, even in the context of a nuclear deal, we are still cooperating with them to counter those destabilizing actions. And I think we are able to provide a very clear assurance that the nuclear deal is about a specific issue, that if Iran did have a nuclear weapon, a nuclear weapon capability, its destabilizing actions would be that much more dangerous because they’d have a nuclear umbrella. So, therefore, we're aiming to resolve that issue diplomatically, but at the same time, our concerns will be just as acute the day after an agreement about those other activities.
Q Ben, was the President able to get any assurances from the Gulf leaders that they will back him or support the United States over an Iran agreement?
MR. RHODES: Again, I don't want to get ahead of the final outcomes here, and, again, those types of questions will be addressed in both the joint statement and then we'll let individual countries speak for themselves.
I think there is an appreciation for how much the nuclear deal that we're pursuing has unprecedented transparency and inspections associated with it, and has some very real, strict limitations. I think the concerns, as I said, have more to do with Iranian activities around the region and the prospect of sanctions relief, which would have to be part of any deal in the context of what Iran is doing around the region.
And that's the purpose for the meeting -- not the only purpose, but on this discussion -- to discuss what are the types of assurances, capabilities and strategies that can deal with destabilizing actions in the region, just as we're also dealing with threats from terrorism and regional conflicts as well.
Q What is the President’s desired outcome, though? Would he like for them to come out and say, we're not going to oppose this? Is that something that you need to gather more international and domestic support?
MR. RHODES: Well, look, we have huge international support for this agreement. These are some of our closest partners in the region, though. We want them to understand what’s in the deal. And because we are committed to their security, and because we cooperate on the security and stability of the region, it's important for them to have an understanding of what the nuclear deal is. And, of course, we would welcome their determination that a nuclear deal can contribute to the security of the region. At the same time, we need to be working together to deal with a range of other threats and challenges as well. So the nuclear deal is a part of this, but it's only one part of a much broader conversation.
Q Ben, can you characterize, in this conversation about the Iran deal, if the President has drawn a distinction here as to whether he sees this as transformative, or simply a transaction? In other words, is there a gesture towards, as the President said publicly, that this could in some way open the door towards more cooperation with Iran, which allies in Arab world are very concerned about?
MR. RHODES: So we’ve been very clear that it’s the latter. It's a transaction on the nuclear issue. This is not a broader rapprochement between the United States and Iran on a range of issues; it is a very specific agreement that will deal with the Iranian nuclear program.
And the relief that they’re getting from sanctions, if we are able to achieve a deal, would be the nuclear sanctions, which were put in place because of Iran’s violation of international norms with respect to its nuclear program. At the same time, we’ve made clear that we’ll still be just as concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities, support for terrorism and proxies across the region. And in fact, we’ll continue to have sanctions imposed for Iranian actions and behavior in those areas as well.
So this is a nuclear deal that we’re doing on the merits of the deal itself, not as a part of a change broadly in the U.S.-Iran relationship. If Iran, in the aftermath of a deal -- if we’re able to conclude one -- moves and evolves in a more constructive direction, that would be good for the region. But that’s not the purpose of the deal itself. The purpose of the deal is to address their nuclear program.
Q Is the expectation that there would be a change in behavior, though?
MR. RHODES: Well, what I would always say about this is we would do the deal if we’re able to get the type of deal that was in the Lausanne framework whether or not Iran changes over the next 10 or 15 years, because if Iran is just as difficult and challenging 10 or 15 years from now, we’ll want to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapons capability.
However, what is also clear is they are more likely to evolve in a more constructive direction in a world in which there is a deal than in a world in which there is no deal -- because, frankly, an Iran that is in resistance and opposition to the West and America and our partners in the region has been the norm in the current context. That may continue to be the case if there’s a deal, but you may see an Iran that wants to be more integrated with the international community, wants to see a nuclear deal as a first step towards that integration.
But again, that’s not the reason for us concluding the deal. The reason for us concluding the deal is to address the nuclear threat. And that’s something that we’ll have to monitor in the years to come.
Q I just want to go back to Jim’s question if I can. Are you looking for assurances from these leaders that they’re not going to try to match Iran’s enrichment capabilities as it is based on the agreement as it stands now?
MR. RHODES: We would say that these countries, and every country, that -- Iran is not the model to follow in pursuing a nuclear program. Acting outside of established international structures, covertly developing enrichment capabilities, violating a variety of different international norms, that’s not the pathway to accessing peaceful nuclear energy.
And so, yes, we would say to these countries, we don’t want to see any type of arms race in the region. If there is an interest in nuclear power -- which some of these countries have had -- there are established means of accessing that power. And again, we have, for instance, a 123 Agreement with the UAE that does exactly that -- that provides them with access to energy without having a domestic infrastructure committed to enrichment.
So, yes, I think our view is what we don’t want to see in the region, and why we’re pursuing a nuclear deal, is we don’t want to see a nuclear arms race in what is already the most volatile part of the world. A deal with Iran contributes to that. A deal with Iran should make these GCC partners more confident that Iran is further away from a nuclear weapon and that there are inspections that can verify that. And in that context, they should work through the long-established means of accessing nuclear energy if that’s something that they choose to do.
Q Thank you. Can you just comment on sort of the -- I don’t know if “mood” is the right word, but the feeling inside the room this morning? And if you’d like to, as part of that, address the absence in particular of the Saudi King and Bahrain’s King, which has gotten a lot of attention. And I know you folks have said that these are the people who are used to working sort of in the trenches who know the details of this. But how is it different? And does it at least remove some of the prestige of what this gathering was supposed to be?
MR. RHODES: No, I don’t think so. I mean, this is a very unique gathering to have leaders from the six GCC countries here at Camp David at what is a truly pivotal moment in the region. And the goal here, really, was not to just have some photo op. the goal was to set up a game plan for our security cooperation going forward at a very volatile time.
And you’re going to see out of this very clear assurances from the United States about the nature of our security commitments to the GCC; very concrete pathways laid out in terms of developing GCC capabilities and a U.S.-GCC partnership on security issues going forward; and also, important check-in on strategies -- on issues like Yemen and Syria and counter-ISIL that are very relevant to our shared security.
In that context, as we have said, Chris, we have here very senior delegations from each country and also the people responsible for all of the different security portfolios in these countries. With respect to Saudi Arabia, having the Crown Prince and the Deputy Crown Prince who are the individuals who have taken the lead on these strategies for Saudi Arabia in terms of security, defense, intelligence, is absolutely the appropriate representation.
And on Bahrain, this morning in the session, the Crown Prince spoke at some length. He clearly has a critical role and voice within not just Bahrain but the GCC generally.
So there was a good dinner last night, a good discussion to kind of set the context for the summit at the dinner last night. And the discussions, I think, are very focused on the issues -- not ceremony, but what are the practical steps that we want to take together.
Q Were there any specific requests made for any particular weapons or missiles from these countries to improve their capacities and their abilities? And in terms of your hope for a more integrated GCC defense system, what role do you envision for the United States to play and help these countries overcome their rivalries?
MR. RHODES: So, first of all, there have been requests -- not just here but over the course of the last several weeks as we’ve been preparing for the summit, we’ve been having a dialogue. And I think some of these partners of ours have indicated, look, we recognize that there are emerging threats that we have to confront.
When you look at maritime, I think there’s a recognition among some of the GCC partners that if they're concerned about potentially dangerous maritime activity that could pose a threat to them, they're going to have to develop new capabilities. There’s a desire in the counterterrorism context to have capabilities on things like special forces that the United States excels at. As we’ve discussed, on ballistic missile defense, there’s a desire to better integrate the different systems of the countries.
All of which is to say this is new terrain in many respects in that we’ve had significant defense relationships and a significant presence in the Gulf region, but it’s been generally focused on large hardware. What we're looking at now here in cyber, maritime, CT, special operations, border security -- these are the things that matter in a region of asymmetric threats. They're not going to necessarily be large conventional conflicts.
And so we are discussing and responding to their interests in those capabilities. We’ll have a role to play both in expediting the provision of those types of capabilities and building their capacity, but also in carrying out joint exercises. And I think that there will be a clear signal out of this meeting that we’ll want to continue to enhance and expand our joint exercises -- have capacity-building provided by the U.S. military that has relationships with each of the GCC partners, helping the GCC partners be more interoperable among themselves and with our military. So there’s going to be a very extensive program coming out of this of cooperation.
And, look, the GCC countries have occasionally had differences among themselves; they’ve occasionally had differences with us. It’s no secret to everybody in this room. That's the nature of international affairs. We don't expect countries to agree on everything. However, we do believe that, as a collective, the GCC will benefit from having the ability to cooperate and to be interoperable in dealing with threats and working with us, because there’s a baseline of shared interests that does allow us to work together even if there are going to be occasional differences.
Q -- find ways to bring the programs -- integrate the GCC defense system?
MR. RHODES: We’ll get into some of the more technical details later. It differs on different areas. There are things like ballistic missile defense that have to be worked up over some time. There are maritime capabilities that you develop through exercises. So I can't put a time frame on everything because each one of those has a different time frame attached to it.
What we are going to do, though, is expedite our ability to provide that type of assistance and make sure we have a team that is working on it with them. And we can go into some of those details after the summit.
Q One more. Does the President see opportunity or does he see opportunity today to address the lack of political freedoms in these countries, and human rights, like he mentioned in his interview?
MR. RHODES: So we're obviously focused here on security and both capabilities and strategies. As a general matter, we regularly raise issues associated with human rights and inclusive governance with each of these countries. I can't say whether or not, for sure, what will come up in the sessions that will happen this afternoon. I can say, again, as a general matter, we believe that not just for the purposes of our values, which lead us obviously to speak out for human rights, but also for purposes of addressing a variety of challenges in the region, that it’s important to provide models that allow for inclusive political participation and also inclusive economic participation so that there are opportunities available for the people of the region.
Q Ben, there is another incident in the Strait of Hormuz with the Iranian boats and a Singapore flagged tanker. And I wonder if that came up at all. That seems to be precisely what these meetings are concerned about. And what is your message to them and do you have a comment on that?
MR. RHODES: On the specific incident, all I can say is that no U.S. vessels or persons were involved. And so beyond that, we’ll have to gather more information about exactly what happened.
But you're right, Carol, this is exactly the type of challenge that many of the GCC partners are focused on. This incident didn't come up, but maritime threats and challenges in areas like the Straits of Hormuz are one of the types of concerns that lead us to the determination that an area of focus for the GCC in capacity-building could be maritime -- should be maritime.
The U.S. is very present in terms of our naval capabilities in the region, but we also want to make sure that in addition to our capabilities, our partners are also able to deal with maritime threats.
Q Can I just ask one other? Do you have any updates on the report of the use chemical weapons in Syria? Have you guys independently confirmed that yourselves?
MR. RHODES: We have not. We have not.
Q Just to follow up on the maritime issue, do you believe that whatever comes out of this meeting will sort of stop Iran from being able to continue with these present actions? Will there be a change? It seems like they’ve been doing this for the last few months. Do you think that the agreement will lead to a change in that?
MR. RHODES: Look, the United States is committed to addressing concerning behavior in the maritime space. So we, ourselves, will be focused on that challenge.
And, yes, I think over time, as our partners in the region develop greater capacity, there will be less of an opening for dangerous or escalatory maritime events -- whether it’s emitting from Iran or from anybody else. And you could see terrorist groups seeking to operate in what is a very busy space for the global economy in terms of tanker traffic, so we do want an outcome of this summit to be GCC partners having the capacity to provide for their own maritime defenses, and then also contributing to a more stable maritime space, along with us and other countries, in a part of the world that is not just facing internal conflicts, but also is crucial to the global economy.
Q Can I ask about Syria? To what extent is this sort of emerging Gulf alliance -- how much is that going to play in conversations today? Has there been or will there be any discussion about a no-fly zone?
MR. RHODES: Syria I think will certainly be on the agenda later today. We believe it’s very important that both the GCC countries and the United States are on the same page in terms of our support for the opposition. In the past, at times, you've seen divergent strategies.
But, look, one of the things that we’ve been focused on for the last year or two has been making sure that we're coordinated with the GCC in the provision of assistance to the opposition, both in terms of lethal assistance through the train-and-equip program, but also nonlethal and political support. So I think there will be a discussion of what is the current state of the conflict in Syria, the status of the opposition, the coordination of our work with the opposition.
And with respect to a no-fly zone, that has not been a substantial topic of discussion in the run-up to the summit itself, so I can't -- it may come up. Some of these countries have obviously favored aggressive action against the Assad regime. All of them are supporting our efforts, and some militarily, inside of Syria against ISIL. But I think as a baseline, we want to make sure that in the provision of assistance to the opposition that we're working together.
And this is an area where, for instance, Mohammed bin Nayef has been a leading figure for the Saudis, even dating back to before his taking on the role of Deputy and now currently Crown Prince.
Q And from the way you frame the agenda, it sounds like a no-fly zone is not going to be a topic with the U.S. as a priority in addressing --
MR. RHODES: On this question -- which comes up with Turkey, frankly, more frequently than our Gulf partners even -- look, we’ve said we are open to evaluating different options inside of Syria. But we have not seen a no-fly zone as being a viable option that can contribute to essentially changing decisively the situation on the ground given the nature of the fighting that's taking place in urban areas and across the country.
But we have had ongoing discussions, and if our partners have ideas, we always hear them out and we're always looking at what are additional steps that we could take to support a more table outcome in Syria.
Q Thanks. Yemen -- that will be part of the discussions I would assume. There’s a feeling from people that we’ve talked to leading up to the summit that some of these countries -- the Saudis, in particular -- feel as though the United States encourages them to take the lead in a regional coalition, and then does some sort of backseat-driving when things don't go -- doesn't match the goals or perhaps even the methods that you’d like to see happen -- as is happening in Yemen. Now, you've pushed them for a pause in the fighting in the air campaign there. How much friction is there in that aspect of the relationship?
And secondly, on the Iran sanctions, hundreds of billions of dollars presumably when the sanctions are lifted will be available to Iran to create some of the mischief and destabilizing actions that many of these nations are worried about. How do you counter that argument?
MR. RHODES: Well, to take your second question first, the fact of the matter is that Iran has been under these sanctions over the course of the last several years, during which time they’ve been carrying out these actions. The sanctions have not prevented Iran from engaging in destabilizing activities across the region that are, frankly, very low cost because often they're asymmetric types of capabilities. And what’s also clear is that Iran has been able to find the funding for both its nuclear program and for some of its activities in the region, even under this pressure of sanctions.
The fact of the matter is, yes, they will be able to access substantial amounts of revenue over the lifetime of a deal with sanctions relief. We believe that it is far more likely that that money is going to be invested in the Iranian economy. Given the size of the hole they're in, given the budgetary commitments that their government needs to fill, and given, frankly, President Rouhani’s linkage of sanctions relief with the improvement of the Iranian economy, we believe, again, what we would expect to see is a prioritization of Iran’s economic situation with respect to sanctions relief.
That doesn't mean that there won’t be some revenue that is used for Iran’s security purposes. But the point that we’ve made is that the sanctions have not been a deterrent on those activities. The sanctions have been able to pressure the Iranians to come to the table on the nuclear issue because of how their economy has suffered. So what we need are strategies that are better able to deal with destabilizing actions in the region. Sanctions alone are not a panacea. If they were, you wouldn’t see the destabilizing actions that are taking place in the region.
Your first question on Yemen, we have supported the Saudi-led effort. I think, frankly, the comments from the leaders here has been complimentary in terms of the support the United States has provided, which has been essential in terms of contributing to what they’ve been aiming to do with their air campaign.
I think the two things that we also recognize are, number one, there’s a grave humanitarian situation inside of Yemen, and this pause is essential to facilitate humanitarian access and assistance reaching populations that are in very dire circumstances. And the Saudis have stepped up in terms of providing significant amounts of humanitarian assistance in that context. So I think we have a shared view that there needed to be a pause and a ceasefire that allows for that type of humanitarian delivery.
And secondly, I think Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries have been clear since this began that they didn't think there was a military solution inside of Yemen. What they want is a political process that can get underway and restore the legitimacy and stability of the Yemeni government. And that process is going to be ongoing both with meetings in Riyadh and efforts through the U.N. going forward.
And so the U.S. I think is in a common view that there has been a challenge to the legitimate, elected government of Yemen from the Houthi rebels, that there needs to be a political solution that restores the legitimacy and stability of that government, but that there also needs to be this window for humanitarian access.
Q Thank you. Another aspect, as you said, Ben, of this summit is the matter of countering ISIL, countering ISIS. Did you receive any firm commitments from the representatives of the countries that are here at the GCC as it relates to that particular issue?
MR. RHODES: So that will be a focus this afternoon. First of all, I’d say that these countries have contributed to the coalition, and a number of them have taken airstrikes, which is very unique. In all the discussion about whether or not there are differences between the U.S. and some of our GCC partners, we are engaged in an unprecedented, coordinated air campaign against a terrorist organization inside of Syria.
I think the discussions will focus on the status of that campaign. They’ll focus on what additional capabilities our partners need in the counterterrorism space, and that could include things like special operations. That could include things like developing better intelligence capabilities. It will also include counter-messaging. And a number of these countries are very committed to countering ISIL’s ideology, its presence in the online and social media space. So I think we will be discussing both the state of the campaign, but also how can we be developing capabilities to deal with the ISIL threat in the long term.
And then, lastly, on the regional context, if we're talking about Syria and Iraq and Libya, clearly there’s an overlap with what we're trying to accomplish in ISIL. We want to arrive at common views of the situations in those countries, and that will ultimately contribute to our effort.
Q Has there ever been -- particularly here -- has there been an ask on the U.S.’s part in terms of getting these GCC countries to put their own troops on the ground, their own boots on the ground to fight ISIS and take the fight to them directly?
MR. RHODES: We have not. With respect to Iraq, that would clearly not be welcomed by the Iraqi government. With respect to Syria, we’ve been in a phase of this campaign that has focused on degrading the ISIL safe haven from the air. At the same time, there have been asks on the train-and-equip side, with respect to the opposition. So in terms of a ground force, our asks have very much focused on the train-and-equip side.
There have been asks in other areas where we're getting better cooperation, on things like stemming the flow of foreign fighters into the countries, working with us to counter financing for ISIL. And since September, when we initiated our joint military operation and also addressed this at the U.N., we’ve seen steady improvements in those areas.
Q Thanks, guys. Ben, first a philosophical question to you, and then I'll ask you about some specific comments. Philosophically speaking, many of the GCC countries have been looking for a NATO-style defense pact, something in writing, something binding. And I'm curious if there is a hesitation on behalf of the United States to enter into that kind of agreement. What’s behind that philosophic?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think that, first of all, we are not initiating treaties, mutual defense treaties with our GCC partners. The interests in that type of arrangement I will tell you has not been uniform across the GCC, but there has been some interest in it. I think that is a very complicated piece of business. That is the type of thing -- when you look at our NATO alliance, for instance, it is a painstaking and very extensive process to integrate into NATO. It involves having a shared commitment to a set of capabilities, a shared commitment in terms of an alliance across a range of issues that go beyond even just hard security.
The same is true in Asia. I think we also would say this is a very unpredictable region in which threats emanate from many different places. What we are prepared to do is say if there is an external threat to your security we stand ready to defend you against that threat or to help you deter that threat. The President will be speaking to this -- the joint statement will be speaking concretely to the nature of our security issues, which we've backed up in the past. We backed it up in the Gulf war; we backed it up by having over 30,000 troops stationed in that part of the world, having the 5th Fleet there.
But, philosophically, I think a mutual defense treaty is an entirely different type of arrangement with a country and it's one that would take far more time to develop than the lead-up to the summit, and frankly, would depend upon a meeting of the minds on a host of issues. I think what we feel is most appropriate here is saying very clearly before the entire world that we're committed to the defense of these countries, which is the type of assurance that goes beyond arrangements that we have with many other partners in many other regions, and that that's the appropriate way of addressing the assurance issue.
Q And the second question I have -- and I'm going to steal a line from Josh, if you’ll pardon me -- I'm not asking you to negotiate from the podium, but I do want to ask you about a comment made by Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin. He told Bloomberg News that there would be no such provision as in an automatic snapback in place as a part of any Iran nuclear arms deal. Your reaction to those comments?
MR. RHODES: That's not true. The framework that was agreed to at Lausanne is very clear in indicating that if there is a breach of the agreement we will have the capacity to snap sanctions back into place.
With respect to our own sanctions, that's very simple because the President will be providing sanctions relief through the use of waivers that are in the legislation, and if the Iranians are in violation of the agreement, we can easily turn off the provision of that relief and all the sanctions are in place because the legislation will still be intact.
With respect to the U.N. Security Council sanctions, what we're currently negotiating is, what is the mechanism to replace the existing U.N. Security Council resolutions with a new U.N. Security Council product that does obviously provide relief from nuclear-related sanctions, but that also preserves some sanctions that we believe are critically important, including in the non-nuclear space -- on issues like sensitive technologies and certain types of arms -- but also allows for there to be a mechanism to re-impose sanctions if the Iranians are in violation.
So, again, I didn’t see the specific comment from Ambassador Churkin. There may have been more context to it. But on the narrow question of whether or not the deal will include snapback, that has always been the basic premise of our approach to sanctions relief and that was clearly the nature of the understanding that was reached in Lausanne.
Q Distraction, or just kind of a pain? Or do you just kind of blow it off, a statement like that?
MR. RHODES: Look, more interpretation has been offered about the Iran deal than just about anything that I've worked on here. Look, we have a framework; now we're into the guts of negotiating the text. That will be ongoing. If we get a deal, everybody can look at it at the end of June. If we don't get a deal, it won't be an issue. And that's how we view it. And again, people will -- I think different countries will emphasize different elements and deemphasize other elements. That's natural. But what matters is whether or not we get the deal that we need by the end of June.
Q -- about the President and Secretary Kerry, you said today, at the Iran discussion. What do individual members of the GCC delegation say in return? Did any one of them say, we agree that a diplomatic approach is the best way to approach it, and if you can get a tight deal that is best for security in the region? Can you give us anything specific that any of them said in the meeting?
MR. RHODES: I don't like to speak for other leaders. So I wouldn't want to kind of get into what each individual said in the discussions. What I will say is, yes, there have been indications that they understand that a verifiable diplomatic agreement as we're negotiating with Iran could address the concerns on the nuclear issue.
To be fair, they’ve also made very clear that their concerns go much broader than the nuclear issue. So if I were to characterize the tenor of their comments, they’re focused largely on not so much just the details of the nuclear agreement, but what does it mean for other Iranian actions; this question of what does it mean in terms of sanctions relief. And so the discussion leads naturally to those other areas.
So, again, I’d characterize it as there is a degree of I think reassurances as it relates to what’s in the nuclear deal. I think the greater degree of concern is about Iran’s other activities in the region.
Q And did they have specific asks on that other than the sort of security kind of umbrella? Things like counterterrorism, like cyber, like maritime? Did they have things that they wanted the White House, the President to do countering Iran’s destabilizing actions in the regions that the U.S. isn’t already doing?
MR. RHODES: Yes, they did, actually. And I was struck by -- and this has been a lead-in to this process -- but I was struck by the fact that they are thinking in quite practical terms about what types of -- in addition to kind of broad assurances and cooperation, to what types of capabilities they’re focused on -- which relates to Iran, but also, frankly, relates to ISIL. What I’d say is there’s a recognition that the threats are increasingly asymmetric in the region, whether they see that emanating from Iran’s destabilizing activities or from terrorist organizations.
And so, traditionally, for instance, there’s always a lot of focus on what airplanes we’re providing through military sales -- F-16s. You’re not going to defeat asymmetric threats just with F-16s. They can play a role, but you’re going to need all these other types of capabilities that we’re discussing.
And I think what’s clear is that that understanding has sunk in and the GCC countries have arrived at that on their own. And that, I think, provides the opening for the type of cooperation we want to see coming out of the summit.
Q -- might be some questions about Kuwait. And yet is this a summit to restore trust? We’re hearing very clearly from the outside that they totally -- and I say totally -- lost trust in this administration. Is this a summit to restore that trust? And then, what are the details? Also, how can the President convince the skeptical countries about the Iran intentions and activities in the area? What kind of arguments that he’s putting forward?
MR. RHODES: Well, on the trust issue, all we can do is be very clear about our intentions. And people may agree or disagree with certain policies, but we want to make clear that this is where we stand, this what we’re doing, and this is why we’re doing it. And I think being able to be candid and up front with partners like this does contribute to trust -- certainly from the perspective of seeing where the President is at on these issues and where he’s headed, and how we believe our approaches are consistent with our shared security concerns.
So our approach on the Iran deal we fundamentally believe would contribute to regional security. Some people may not agree with that premise, but we’re going to lay out our rationale and why the alternative of a nuclear deal that does have this type of limitation on Iran’s program and is verifiable for 25 years is preferable to the alternatives.
The second thing I’d say, though, is it's also about concrete areas of cooperation. So it's not just words and debates about developments in the region. It’s going to be hard to find people who agree on every development in the region in any case. It's about how do we work together? What are our militaries doing together? Where are our military sales going to focus on? What types of joint exercises are we going to do? What is the strategy going forward in Yemen? So we would like it to lead to a very practical cooperation with the GCC countries going forward.
Q And then what of their capabilities? This is the first time we heard this from Washington. The GCC is now -- will be GCC to take over some military action --
MR. RHODES: Well, what I’d say is, look, we’re committed to the region. We have a huge security presence in the region. I think you see a couple of things. One is, you’ve seen the GCC take on more itself in terms of what you’re looking at in Yemen, in terms of the participation of GCC partners in the counter-ISIL campaign. So you already see the GCC moving into operating as a coalition in certain cases.
We also fundamentally believe that if the GCC is more interoperable in terms of their military capabilities, they’ll be more effective. One area, for instance, is ballistic missile defense, where we see different countries having individuals systems, while if you integrate that system it's a more effective system. And the same would be true in many of these other areas.
So we recognize that these are independent countries who are going to have, in some respects, independent -- in many respects -- independent foreign policies. But coordination and interoperability among themselves and with us would contribute to the regional security picture.
Q Are the Saudis and other GCC countries, in connection with these meetings, are they expressing an interest in going forward with more peaceful domestic nuclear activity? And is that something that has -- for instance, you’d sign off or --
MR. RHODES: No, that issue has not come up at all. So none of these countries have indicated to us some interest in changing their domestic nuclear energy picture, or have raised it at the summit. So I know there’s been speculation about this, but, frankly, we have not received any signal from these countries that that’s a direction they want to move in.
With respect to Saudi Arabia and the story that you may be referencing this morning, the individual quoted in that story is not a current government official. So in our interactions with the government, we have not had an indication that they’re moving in that direction. And in fact, the focus is much more on the Iran deal and the specifics of that deal.
Q Following up on the human rights question. You said that the issue was raised, but has it ever gone beyond that? Has it ever gone to the point of suggesting to them that certain things, certain weapons programs, et cetera, might be tied to improving and increasing democratic forms or rights for women, et cetera?
MR. RHODES: We have not -- to be I think as specific as I can, we have not leveraged our security cooperation to try to force a change in terms of the political systems inside of these countries. When there have been situations that concerned us, we’ve been willing to look at limiting or pausing the provision of certain assistance.
So, for instance, in Bahrain, when we had concerns about human rights violations in the context of the protests that took place in 2011-2012, we put a hold on the provision of some of our security assistance that we believe would have potentially been utilized in those activities. So we have sent a clear message to include withholding certain types of assistance when we see actions that we object to.
But I think, again, applying that type of pressure, frankly, generally in these relationships, it's not clear to us that that would lead these countries to embrace different political systems. They clearly have a different view of how to organize their society.
What we have said, repeatedly, is there are issues that we care deeply about that we’ll continue to discuss. Whether that’s freedom to assemble, whether that’s the rights of women and minorities inside of countries, we speak up for those things everywhere and we’ll continue to do so.
Q I was just wondering, is the U.S. government prepared to -- or going to offer all the GCC states major and non-NATO ally status?
MR. RHODES: We’re open to discussions on that topic -- some of them have that status already, and so I think we’re open to a discussion in that area. I think, frankly, they have been more interested in the nature of the type of public assurance that we can provide with respect to their security and the nature of the capabilities that we can help them to develop. So that has not been the area of particular or focus for them in the run-up to the summit, but it's something we’d be open to discussing with them.
Q Have you brought it up? I mean, have you offered it to them today?
MR. RHODES: It's come up in the discussions as one potential area of increased cooperation. But, again, I think more of the focus has led to what is the nature of the public assurance that we can offer -- that we will hear today in our joint statement -- and then, what is the nature of the capabilities we can provide. And this may be a topic that we’ll continue to explore with them going forward.
Q You mentioned earlier that the Lausanne framework is clear when it comes to violations by Iran of the agreement. But the White House factsheet that you released mentions -- and I forget the exact word -- I think it's “substantial violation.” Will the deal be clear on what substantial actually means? That’s one. And then, two, you mentioned that the Gulf countries matching whatever Iran is allowed to retain has not come up. What would be wrong with that? If the deal maintains that everything Iran has is exclusively peaceful, if everything is verifiably peaceful, why can’t they match everything in the deal?
MR. RHODES: Well, on the first question, part of what we’ll have to identify in terms of what constitutes a breach is the mechanism for determining that there’s a breach. Under the Joint Plan of Action, which has obviously been a bit of a test in how to pursue these issues in other areas, there is a joint commission that can make those types of determinations.
The IAEA’s views are obviously fundamentally important to that determination because, frankly, in any type of complex inspections regime, there are very minor and inadvertent violations -- like somebody could be a half an hour later to letting someone in a gate -- that you determine is not a material breach but has another explanation. Or there is a clear violation which is the Iranians are not permitting access to a site that they need to permit access to, or they are using centrifuges in a way that was not part of the deal. So there will be a mechanism established in the final deal to make a determination about what constitutes a violation.
I think from a practical standpoint, on your second question, it doesn't make any sense to say that, because, hypothetically, Iran has X number of centrifuges we're going to have that number of centrifuges too, just to have them. That's not an efficient or effective way to develop a nuclear energy capacity. So from just a practical standpoint, we don't think it makes sense. But from a security standpoint, I think if the perception was that everybody was preparing to develop a domestic infrastructure as a hedge to be able at some point to pursue a nuclear weapon, that would not contribute to stability in the region. So I think from a security standpoint, we think that it would likely add and contribute to tensions.
The fact is, again, there are established ways of developing nuclear energy through -- look, if any country wants to develop the access to nuclear energy through existing international agreements in line with international law, that's their right. But the point is what Iran did is the opposite. They went outside of those mechanisms. They developed these capabilities covertly. That's not the model to follow.
Q Can you give us some sense of how the Gulf leaders took the message that President Obama gave regarding the assurances on Iran’s program? How did they receive it? Did they seem like they were getting those assurances? Or do they have more questions regarding their concerns?
MR. RHODES: I think that -- again, there was a detailed briefing that Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz gave their foreign ministers in Paris, and so they had a pretty good understanding coming in about the details of the nuclear deal.
However, not everybody was in that meeting in Paris -- Margaret may have been. But we wanted to make sure that all of the leaders could hear from the President, Secretary Kerry, Jack Lew, kind of the reaffirmation of the key details. And I think they're well received. I think people have an appreciation that these are very specific and comprehensive inspections and transparency measures; the limitations are real. So I think that there is a better appreciation for what’s in the deal itself.
Again, where they expressed concern is on Iran’s other behavior and whether or not the sanctions relief could contribute to Iran’s actions, as we discussed earlier.
Q But what happens if and when the Yemen cease-fire ends? I mean, it seems at the moment to be shaky at best and any concrete plan for talks doesn't involve the Houthis.
MR. RHODES: We would like -- what we would like to see is this window, though, provide an opportunity to initiate those political discussions and take advantage of this period of calm. So our preference is to see the humanitarian pause and cease-fire remain in place to see political discussion gain traction.
If they don't, I think we certainly understand the need for Saudi Arabia to defend its border and to work with the coalition on behalf of stability inside of Yemen. I think we’d want to make sure that every action that's being taken keeps in mind the ultimate necessity of a political resolution rather than a military one. Again, I think the Saudis and the other coalition members understand and appreciate that. They don't have a desire for a protracted military conflict either. So, again, I think the immediate aim is to test whether a political track can gain traction during this pause.
Q You're thinking of something more than five days, then, right? It will have to be rolled over in order for you to know whether that's going to --
MR. RHODES: You would. You would. And, look, I think the determination will be made at the end of this window, but I think even now there are efforts being made by the Saudis and others to test whether a political track can take hold in this period.
Q Are you going to take some domestic questions?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q You're not going to take any domestic questions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve been standing up here for an hour waiting to take those. (Laughter.)
Q My question is about Syrian opposition. Did you discuss, or are you going to discuss the possibility of expanding, for example, the train-and-equip program, like providing them with some kind of weaponry request, such as anti-aircraft guns or expanding the training program?
MR. RHODES: I think that the support to the opposition, including the train-and-equip program, will be discussed later today. I think we’ll be discussing the nature of our strategy and our coordination mechanism.
I would anticipate -- I couldn’t say for certain, but a frequent topic of discussion is what type of training, what types of weapons will be provided. I don't know that these leaders will get too down into the weeds of specific weapons systems, though. So I think it will be more a strategic direction about where we want to go with the train-and-equip program; what the situation is in Syria, where, frankly, the Assad regime has suffered some losses recently; and also, frankly, what is our approach to the political negotiations with respect to a transition in Syria.
So I think it will be at that more strategic level rather than the leaders themselves adjudicating between different weapons system.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, everybody.
Q Josh, can I ask one breaking news question? Apparently, since we’ve been in this room, there was --
MR. EARNEST: You know I have a problem when you do that, right? (Laughter.)
Q I know you do.
Q Arctic drilling. Arctic drilling.
Q Please. There was a White House lockdown that was imposed and lifted since we’ve been in this room. I don't know if you were aware of that?
MR. EARNEST: That is a quick response, isn’t it?
Q But it had to do reportedly with a man who was piloting a drone near the White House.
MR. EARNEST: So I was aware of this issue right before we walked in. So I’d refer you to the Secret Service, and they can give you a more fulsome account of what exactly has happened and now apparently been resolved over the course of the last hour.
Q I don’t know if it's been resolved. It's just that the lockdown was lifted.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. They’ll be able to speak to it.
Q Josh, I was just wondering -- the two times we’re going to see the President, can you differentiate what’s going to happen?
MR. EARNEST: So the President will have an opportunity at the conclusion of the third working session to make a brief statement, standing alongside the other leaders who are participating in the discussions.
From there, the other leaders will depart, and then the President will give a more full, formal statement in front of the cabin where they convened the meetings today. At the conclusion of that formal statement, the President will take a couple of questions from all of you. As if we haven’t taken enough questions already today.
Q And will the Gulf leaders -- will any of them take questions?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what their plans are today, but you should ask the individual delegations. It is my understanding that they are at least willing -- or planning to make public statements. But I’d refer you to each of the delegations for the plans that they have.
Q But not with the President?
MR. EARNEST: No. And that would not be part of our standard practice for them to do so. It would be a little cumbersome to have seven world leaders standing there taking questions.
Q We heard that there might be one leader with the President making that statement at 4 o’clock or so. But that’s not the case?
MR. EARNEST: I think there’s a possibility that one of the leaders may also speak alongside the President. I think that’s still being worked out, but that is a possibility.
Q That’s pool only right?
MR. EARNEST: That is pool only. Those will be very brief statements. I don’t want to get your expectations too high. We’re talking just a couple of minutes while they’re all standing there. The President will deliver a more formal, longer statement in advance of taking a couple of questions. And that will be after the other leaders have already departed.
Q And that’s all going to be up there?
MR. EARNEST: And that would all be up there. I'm sorry?
Q -- the President’s statement pool only?
MR. EARNEST: No. For the final statement where he’ll take questions, that will be open to the entire press corps that’s attending here. I think it will be pooled for cameras, but everyone else will be invited to attend.
Q Is the President pleased with what’s going on in the Senate now?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, the indications were positive and we were pleased to see that they apparently reached an agreement. But since we’ve been standing up here, I haven’t heard if they’ve actually taken that vote that was planned.
Q He’s still going to sign it? That’s still -- that’s what I thought he was referring to --
MR. EARNEST: No, I think he was talking about the trade legislation.
Q And the Iran bill, there’s an expectation that’s going to get out of the House.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what if that’s planned for today --
MR. EARNEST: -- in a place where the Senate version is passed by the House that reflects the bipartisan compromise that was reached in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and that would be something the President would sign.
Q -- the details coming out of there -- talking about a paper communique style?
MR. EARNEST: We will have a written document at the conclusion of the meetings that will detail more of the commitments that were made.
Q Separate and apart from whatever statement he makes with one more of the leaders?
MR. EARNEST: Correct. Lots of information to be aware of today.
Q And what time should we see that, the written?
MR. EARNEST: I would assume that would be at the conclusion of the third working session. So probably around 4:00 p.m., but we’ll expedite that. We’ll get that out as soon as we can.
Q Do you expect a specific (inaudible) of the Israeli government?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know. We’ll get back to you on that.
Q You don’t want to stay for another hour? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to stay for another hour.
Thank you, guys. I appreciate it.
2:25 P.M. EDT